Miami Connection Blu-Ray Review (Robert Harding)

Miami Connection

Miami Connection Blu-Ray

Starring Y.K. Kim, Vincent Hirsch and Joseph Diamand

Directed by Y.K. Kim, Woo-sang Park

When you think of B-grade action films from the 80s you might conjure up visuals of martial arts, big hair, uzis, large mustaches, gangs, and ninjas. With Miami Connection you get all that and more within the first 5 minutes! This practically never before seen film from 1987 is the masterpiece of Y.K. Kim who not only stars in the film but wrote, produced, financed, cast and even directed.

Miami Connection tells the story of a group of Tae Kwon Do musicians called Dragon Sound who end up crossing paths with a group of local drug dealing punks. It’s not a very friendly get together and things quickly get ugly… for the punks! But when the punks enlist the help of biker ninjas, the fights turns out to be more than Dragon Sound expected.

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While this is a Blu-ray release, don’t expect pristine visuals and audio. The disc opens with a message stating that “Miami Connection was almost lost when a hurricane destroyed the film’s original negative in 2004. Our transfer was assembled from the best existing materials and scanned at 2K resolution. Due to the nature of the available elements, some imperfections and inconsistencies may occur.” While there is no fault in the transfer of the film, the film is full of print damage.  There has been no restoration done and while that is a little disappointing, one might say it adds a bit of an “authentic feel” to the presentation.

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The story behind Miami Connection from how it came about, to how it disappeared, to how it was eventually found again is almost as interesting as the film itself and is documented in a small booklet insert. Other extras include “Friends for Eternity: The Making of Miami Connection” which runs about 20 minutes long  and is less a making of and more a retrospective consisting mostly of interviews with cast and crew some 20 years after the fact. There’s an “Alternate Ending” which running a little over two minutes is actually the original ending which was later re-shot when Y.K. Kim couldn’t find anyone who liked the movie. There are a bunch of “Deleted Scenes” running a total of just under 12 minutes. “Dragon Sound Reunion Concert from Fantastic Fest 2012” is 10 minutes of footage shot at Fantastic Fest of the actors on stage blended with film footage as Dragon Sound perform a 6+ minute version of “Friends” followed by “Against the Ninja.” Running about two minutes long   “Who is Y.K. Kim?”  is a cute little piece that gives some background about Mr. Kim through what must be an introduction video used at seminars Y.K. Kim puts on before he comes on stage. “The New American Dream” is over 22 minutes long and is an infomercial for Y.K. Kim’s “The New American Dream” program.  The main extra is the audio commentary by Y.K. Kim and Joe Diamand mediated by Drafthouse Cinema programmer Zack Carlson. It is mostly Mr. Carlson doing a screen specific interview as he tries to get the two guys talking. Rounding out the extras are trailers for The Ambassador, Bullhead, Klown, Wake in Fright, the Drafthouse Alliance Stinger, and the 2012 trailer for Miami Connection, a reversible cover for the Blu-ray, and a digital download of the film.

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Y.K. Kim first set out when making this film to promote his philosophy and physical ability.  Despite the poor acting (most actors in the film were simply friends of Y.K. Kim), low budget, and clear lack of filmmaking talent (Y.K. Kim had almost zero encounters with movies prior to taking on many of the aspects of the film), Miami Connection clearly drives home the ideas of friendship, perseverance and positive attitude. It’s especially obvious in the theme song “Friends” with its catchy chorus.  Though not intentionally comical, those involved in the film seem to have come to embrace the fan reaction of this film who clearly enjoy it as a piece of b-movie schlock full of camp, and fun filled sequences. The film as a whole plays out as a very entertaining advertisement for Tae Kwon Do just as Mr. Kim intended. Except that, upon viewing it, Y.K. Kim noticed that it was extremely violent which was in contrast to his martial arts teachings. So, in perfect b-movie fashion, in order to rectify this over abundance of violence he added a simple sentence to the end of the film (as if a few words would correct the 80 previous minutes), “Only through the elimination of violence can we achieve world peace.” An almost perfect ending to this SoBIG (so bad it’s good) martial arts extravaganza.

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This Is 40 Review (Kirk Haviland)

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This Is 40 (2012)

Starring Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Megan Fox, Maude Apatow, Iris Apatow, Chris O’Dowd, Jason Segel, Melissa McCarthy, Graham Parker, Lena Dunham, Annie Mumolo, Robert Smigel, Charlyne Yi, Lisa Darr with John Lithgow and Albert Brooks

Written and Directed by Judd Apatow

With This is 40, Judd Apatow’s latest directorial effort, we delve back in to the world that he created years ago with “Knocked Up”, this time focusing on the lives of Pete and Debbie instead of Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigel’s Ben and Allison. In fact Rogen and Heigl are completely missing from the entire film this time around. The real question is can Apatow craft a successful follow up to “Knocked Up” by going a completely different direction with it?

Five years after “Knocked Up” introduced us to Pete (Rudd) and Debbie (Mann), we are re-introduced to the couple approaching a milestone in each of their lives in This Is 40. After years of marriage, Pete lives in a house of all females, wife Debbie and their two daughters, eight-year-old Charlotte (Iris Apatow) and 13-year-old Sadie (Maude Apatow).  As Pete struggles to keep his record label afloat, Debbie is trying to figure out which of her employees is stealing from her clothing store and both are trying to figure out how to cope with turning the big 4 O. We follow the couple through three weeks between Debbie and Pete’s birthdays and bear witness to the trials and tribulations that come out of a couple struggling to reignite and continue their romance well past 40.

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This is 40 is in many ways a mess of a film, but it does enough to get the job done. The script is very biographical in nature, with some flights of fancy thrown in for effect, but sadly comes in around half-hour too long. The story seems a natural and logical progression of the main characters from “Knocked Up”, and it’s the core family sections that work the best. The biggest issue is the decision to completely ignore the fact that Katherine Heigl played Mann’s sister in “Knocked Up”. With Apatow just ignoring the fact that Heigl and Rogen are missing in this follow up, it ends up hanging like a cloud over the entire film. But even without Heigl and Rogen appearing, even ignoring the existence of the previous movie all-together, this movie has major issues. Everything associated with Debbie`s store is superfluous and unrealistic. Debbie and Desi’s (Fox) night on the town, complete with the roster of the Philadelphia Flyers in tow, is quite ridiculous and only there to mirror the very similar scene from Knocked Up. Add in a random “biological” father to showing up in Debbie’s life (thus making sure he is NOT the father of Heigl’s character from the previous film as well) and adding Albert Brooks trying to deliver “the most Jewish performance of all time” as Rudd’s father doesn’t work either.

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Mann and Rudd are good here, and mange to keep the train on the tracks. Megan Fox, Lithgow, Segal and O’Dowd are solid here, even if there characters make little sense in the film’s context. The real issues here are Yi and Brooks. While normally I would be fawning over Brooks in a movie, his performance here looks like Apatow spent the time with Brooks in bewilderment instead of reeling him in, and his performance is almost insufferable because of it. And Yi is pretty terrible here, her act is starting to wear thin and despite serious implications against her character she is never more than a punch line. Apatow’s daughters as the daughters in the film show real chemistry, but since they are sisters and are acting with their real life mom Mann, this should hardly be surprising. That said, when it comes to having to go more dramatic in parts, his eldest Maude shows she is out of her league as she is not convincing in the slightest. Melissa McCarthy, in not much more than a glorified cameo, rips every scene that she is in away from everyone around her as she is one of the funniest parts of the film. In fact make sure to stick around into the credits as there is an outtake sequence of McCarthy’s scene which may be the funniest part of the film.

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While flawed and with multiple issues, This Is 40 is still laugh out loud funny in many parts, and the stuff around the family core is actually pretty solid. Despite its shortcomings This is 40 is still a recommend.

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Killing Them Softly Review (Dustin SanVido)

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Killing Them Softly (2012)

Starring Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta and Richard Jenkins

Directed by Andrew Dominik

Sitting in a car conversing with his go-between mob lawyer (Richard Jenkins), Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) takes a moment to explain his preference for murder: he dislikes doing it up close, as people become emotional, and sometimes try anything to talk their way out; he prefers to “kill them softly” from a distance. This is just one of the moments in Andrew Dominik’s latest that is oozing with analogical orgasms in nearly every scene and sequence. Killing Them Softly is a methodically paced, supremely acted, brutally violent and masterfully written neo-noir, and is a solid entry in the director’s furthering career.

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The story follows Cogan, a problem fixer for the mob who is called upon to investigate a robbery at a mob-controlled card game that has halted the influx of a key revenue stream. Those responsible must be found and dealt with accordingly, and that’s what Jackie Cogan specializes in. Like the film itself, Cogan is steely eyed, carries himself with a workman-like attitude and assured confidence, and is rife with cynicism. Beginning the story and coinciding with Cogan’s investigation that follows are the perpetrators of the robbery, who couldn’t be any more the polar opposite of our anti-hero. On one hand there’s Frankie (Scoot McNairy), a small time criminal who is looking for that one job that could propel him into realizing his delusions of grandeur. On the other, there’s Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), a drug addicted freelancer who’s just looking for enough work to further his career aspirations as a drug dealer. Supporting our variety of antagonists is washed out hit man Mickey (James Gandolfini), the manager of the card game Mark (Ray Liotta), a third accomplice to the robbery (Vincent Curatola), and the aforementioned mob lawyer (Richard Jenkins) who refers to his employers as a group of handicapped children who need to be walked through every little detail. How these characters come into the presence of one another and interact is the biggest joy of the film. Everyone involved brings their A-game to the table, even if their participation is somewhat brief, because it’s the briefest moments in Killing Them Softly that leave the biggest impact.

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It’s easy to say and ironic that this is Brad Pitt’s best film since Dominik’s last, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. I’ve always enjoyed Pitt when he’s in manic crazy mode ala Tyler Durden in Fight Club or in Twelve Monkeys, but it seems his penchant for picking his roles very carefully and sparingly has made and kept me a fan. Ben Mendelsohn is a rising talent who has been on the up and up since his fantastic turn in the under seen Animal factory and I’ve never disliked any of his performances thus far. Considering he’s normally some type of scum bag, be it corporate or criminal, that takes serious talent. Scoot McNairy was introduced to the world in the similarly under-seen Monsters, and is on a similar rise. His character is a loser, but his fragility and teenage-like demeanour are sold perfectly and it’s fun to watch him interject self-depreciating humour into the situation and at characters he’s interacting with. Gandolfini, Liotta, Curatola, and Jenkins are all exactly what you’d expect them to be, slipping into the exact types of characters you’ve come to expect from these seasoned veterans of criminal drama, Jenkins being the standout.

Killing Them Softly at its core is a reflection of the United States, and specifically the recent economic collapse and government bailout. Whereas in Cogan’s Trade, the novel the film is based on took place in the 1970’s, Killing Them Softly takes place in an unspecified New York neighbourhood circa 2008, and makes a great effort throughout to let its viewers know what’s happening in this story is not unlike what happened to that country during the recession. Time is taken to interweave the narrative with televisions and radios airing speeches from the former President George Bush, and current President Barack Obama. Sometimes it’s blatant, and sometimes it’s just background noise. The similarity is never more clear than in the exceedingly satisfying ending, where Cogan’s cynicism towards life in America completely boils over due to the actions of another. At times I felt beaten over the head by this point, although I appreciate that Dominik respects his audience’s intelligence enough that he’s willing to throw so much subtext onto the screen.

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That being said, this is a film for people who love cinema, and for those who prefer a slow burn rather than a frantic action movie (the kind of film this was ironically marketed as). It’s unapologetic, brutal and beautiful to look at. There are no happy endings or stylistic tones found within that would appeal to a general audience. If you’re a fan and are familiar with Dominik’s writing and directing style, you are going to get exactly what you desire: a series of dialogue driven sequences sometimes punctuated by a moment or sequence of visceral bloody violence in the vein of his earlier work. If you walked in thinking you were getting a slick and well choreographed brainless gangster flick, then go watch Gangster Squad. Films like Killing them Softly prove that in today’s world of franchises, tent poles, and celebrity-vehicles, there is still quality-fare to be discovered and enjoyed.

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Life of Pi Review (Paolo Kagaoan)

Life of Pi (2012)

Starring Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall and Gerard Depardieu

Directed by Ang Lee

The opening credits already worried me, showing me every exotic animal with names I’ve already forgotten in the slowest pace possible. Is this the beat that Life of Pi will be flowing to?

This adaptation of novel of the same name show these animals within a zoo that’s managed by the father of the young Piscine Molitor or ‘Pi’ Patel (Sharma), the latter being an Indian boy growing up in Pondicherry, a land transforming from French colonization into joining independent India.

The adult version of Pi (Khan) lives in Montreal, his voyage between the two countries – or three, for technical purposes – is so compelling that an off-screen character named Mamaji recommended him to a man (Spall) who’s stuck on what he’s going to write. Pi is a religious professor, the writer is a North American brand of young secular atheist. Both of them aren’t smug about their intellectual backgrounds. But part of Mamaji’s recommendation of Pi is that his story will convince the writer that God exists but again, not in a smug way. I can feel some eyes rolling at such a premise.

I loved the book, its simple language evoking the energy of a boy’s growth and his lonely and one in a trillion journey that puts him in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in the same lifeboat as a terrifying tiger named Richard Parker. Or at least, that’s what I remember from the novel.

It’s the opposite of the film’s approach. Again, the pacing in the first scenes, as well as its mixture of Indian and French music softening the impact of the moments when Pi takes a stand on his (religious) identity. It almost damages my experience of the entire film. Those scenes should have amped us up to the movie’s climax, its chaos building up and complementing the ocean’s disturbing quietness. The scenes in India as also have this digital, amateurish texture capturing the shallowest characters in Ang Lee’s directing career.

His time in the ocean, then, isn’t stark but a magical although scary time. Allow me to compare this another director’s work, James Cameron, who has championed the film. I’ll also say that the shipwreck scenes, when the camera occasionally follows Pi in and out of ships and lifeboats, are more audacious than its predecessor. And since Pi, Richard Parker and the rest of us are out in the ocean, we get to see every type of real marine life that evokes the fictional life forms in Avatar. I never pegged Lee as a visual director but his rural/exurban landscapes should have given me that hint, and the aesthetics are what I can give this movie its credit. It’s worth the 3D medium although it’s not necessarily worth its price.

But does watching someone with God’s creatures, or watching him in a Job-like situation make anyone feel closer to God? Not necessarily (Full disclosure: you probably all know that I’m gay but I’m also a Catholic, one of the religions that Pi adheres to). The movie dazzles and thrills but its main goal should come from a text not just about wonderment but endurance and perseverance. I never really felt those here, and knowing the movie’s ending, as well as other factors in the movie’s storytelling might have spoiled that for me. The ending also doesn’t offer any answers, and this is the kind of movie that should have done that.

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Rise of the Guardians Review (Kirk Haviland)

Rise of the Guardians (2012)

Starring the voices of Chris Pine, Alec Baldwin, Jude Law, Isla Fisher and Hugh Jackman

Written by David Lindsay-Abaire based on the books written by William Joyce

Directed by Peter Ramsey

New in theaters in time for US Thanksgiving weekend, and ready to fight for box office domination against stiff competition, Dreamworks and Paramount Pictures bring us the new animated film Rise of the Guardians. Classic iconic characters such as Santa, the Easter Bunny, Sandman, Tooth Fairy and Jack Frost are all in this rousing tale of camaraderie and teamwork. But how does Rise of the Guardians fare against other options out there this weekend?

Rise of the Guardians starts by introducing us to Jack Frost, the fun-loving yet very lonely master of ice and snow, who runs around in secret as the humans of the world cannot see him. When an evil spirit known as Pitch lays down the gauntlet to take over the world the Guardians, the group of legendary characters mentioned above, are re-united to defend the earth and its children. But Pitch knows the Guardians’ weakness and is ready to take them on. It’s up to Jack to decide whether he will change his solitary lifestyle and become a true guardian.

Dreamworks has managed to produce what is destined to be another holiday classic, yet for Easter, not Christmas. You read that right, the film is set three days before Easter, not Christmas. The script is very funny and while it still hits familiar notes, the film makes these conventions work and introduces its own rules specific to this universe. We see not just Santa’s Workshop but the Tooth Fairy’s palace and the Easter Bunny’s burrow. Many films have shown Christmas in full prep mode, but Guardians shows us a fun, if not slightly Willy Wonka creepy, interpretation of the Easter Bunny’s prep. Having the writer of the original books William Joyce along on the production adds to the quality of the film and has obviously helped in the creativity department.

The voice cast here works for the most part, even though it is a touch gimmicky. Chris Pine as Jack Frost and Isla Fisher as Tooth Fairy are both charming and sweet. Jackman’s bunny and the non-verbal Sandman are highlights for sure. Alec Baldwin doing basically the Russian version of Mike Myers’ goofy Shrek accent works most of the time, but does to go over the deep end at times. The best work though belongs to Jude Law, whose work as Pitch Black, the villain, is impeccable.

The CG animation work is great, with many photo realistic touches and elements. The character models are updated takes on the classic imagery we have of these iconic characters. Santa becomes a large tattooed burly man with a thick Russian accent; The Easter Bunny is a 6 foot tall Kiwi with boomerangs for weapons and the Sandman is actually made out of sand. These ingenious little touches lets you know right away that we are dealing with new takes on these characters and set the right tone for the adventure to come.

Destined to become a crossover holiday classic, much like Henry Selick’s Nightmare before Christmas is both a Christmas and Halloween favorite, Rise of the Guardians will be the same for Christmas and Easter. Fun, smart and endearing, Rise of the Guardians will be fun for kids of all ages. Rise of the Guardians is a definite recommend.

Till Next Time,

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